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Grace Halsell; Author Impersonated Black, Wrote ‘Soul Sister’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Grace Halsell, the daughter of a West Texas cattleman whose profound curiosity about “a wider world” led her to write books about her trans-racial adventures--the most famous occurring at the height of the civil rights movement when she impersonated a black woman in the Deep South--has died.

Halsell, who was 77 and suffered from multiple myeloma, died at a Washington, D.C., hospital Wednesday.

During a 50-year career as a journalist and author, Halsell, never satisfied to merely observe, chose to experience other lives, particularly those at society’s margins.

She wrote of her experiences pretending to be a black woman in Mississippi in the 1969 book “Soul Sister.” In other books she told of how she adopted the traditional garb of a Navajo woman and assumed the desperate strivings of a Mexican immigrant illegally crossing into the United States in the 1970s. In the 1980s, she went undercover with a group of Christian fundamentalists.

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“I wanted to strip myself to see who I was, to see if there was anything there,” Halsell once said of her unusual life.

Not everyone was impressed by the extremes she took to find out. But remarking on her jarring transformations, Gore Vidal once said of Halsell: “She has led the most interesting and courageous life--or lives--of any American of our time.”

Halsell was born in Lubbock, Texas, in 1923. Her mother was an independent-minded woman who married Halsell’s father when she was 16 and he was 30 years older. He was a cowboy who came from a slaveholding family and battled Indians on the Chisholm Trail. Halsell grew up on his yarns of the frontier, writing in her 1996 autobiography, “In Their Shoes,” that “I never felt anything I did was anything at all compared to his stories.”

The unbounded spaces of the Texas plains gave her what she once called “a fugitive impulse” to travel. But the urge was fed by her father, who told her to travel and “get the benefit.”

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Halsell came of age at a time when women were unquestionably “the second sex.” No stoker of home fires, she studied anthropology at Columbia University and, by 1945, was the first woman to cover the police beat at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

She met and married the chief of detectives of the Fort Worth Police Department, but realized after a few years she made a mistake. With $50 in her handbag, she boarded a plane to Paris and didn’t look back.

“I just wanted what I set out to find . . . a wider world.”

She hunted lions in Paraguay, traversed the Amazon by tug and shared a fishing junk with a family of 28 in the waters off Hong Kong. The articles she wrote were printed in newspapers throughout the Southwest.

By the mid-1960s she was a reporter in the Washington bureau of the Houston Post. At a news conference, President Lyndon Johnson recruited her to join his White House staff. Although he didn’t say so at first, he really wanted her to be his secretary. When he asked if she took dictation, she said, “No.” Halsell eventually took a position writing his official statements and was the highest-ranking woman on his staff during her three years there.

Shortly after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination in 1968, Halsell left the White House, intent on a journey she described as “embracing the Other.”

An important guide on the journey was John Howard Griffin, who had used medication to darken his skin a decade earlier and wrote the best-selling 1961 book “Black Like Me.” Although he had been approached by other women who wanted to try what he had done, he discouraged all but Halsell, who had, he believed, “the guts” to cross the color line.

She took pills usually prescribed for blacks with pigmentation loss, hastening the transformation by baking on the beach in Puerto Rico. She completed the look with a wig and dark contact lenses. With the help of a small network of blacks who knew her secret, she set out to become a “soul sister.”

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The first place she tried out her new identity was in a Harlem hospital, where she sought treatment for sunburned feet. A white doctor, sneering at her blisters, told her: “You people should bathe more often.”

From there she went to Clarkesdale, Miss., where the best job she could find was working for $5 a day as a maid. She left after her employer, whom she described as a bank director and church deacon, nearly raped her. When she asked to use a whites-only telephone at a bus station, the police were called and an officer told her to “learn to keep your place.”

In Indianola, Miss., she attempted to worship in an all-white church with four blacks. The police came with sirens blaring and arrested them.

“Let no one think apartheid is a South African monopoly; legally, yes, but socially, spiritually, psychologically, no,” she wrote in the book.

Charles Evers, the brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers and the first black mayor in Mississippi, said that because of Halsell he “realized how many white people were opposed to racism.”

But Evers also thought Halsell, in her old-fashioned liberalism, was too soft on blacks. Others were still harsher, such as a Washington Post reviewer who said she was “instantly repulsed by the audacity of Miss Halsell, after a few months of a half-masquerade . . . to call herself ‘soul sister.’ ”

“Soul Sister” sold more than 1 million copies in paperback and was translated into six languages. It was followed by “Bessie Yellowhair,” Halsell’s 1973 account of her life on a Navajo reservation in Arizona and posing as a Navajo nanny for a Los Angeles family, and “The Illegals,” her 1978 book about crossing the border into the United States with Mexican immigrants. Each book detailed the degradations she experienced in the guise of a person of another race.

She was never so audacious that she believed passing was the same as being. Passing, she said, “was like looking through a keyhole” at another life.

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She prized this quote from Spanish philosopher Miguel de Unamuno: “The secret of human life, the universal secret, the root secret from which all other secrets spring, is the longing for more life. The furious and insatiable desire to be everything else without ever ceasing to be ourselves.”

Halsell’s survivors include a sister and a brother, both of Texas.


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